Action Fest 2012: J.J. Perry on Ender’s Game, Django Unchained and more!

The fight director behind Haywire describes the action sequences from all his upcoming films, from Argo to Gangster Squad.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


ActionFest awarded J.J. Perry as Fight Director of the year. They probably meant last year but his work on Haywire alone warrants it. He’s done a lot for 2012 movies too so when we got an interview, we got some tidbits on Django UnchainedGangster Squad, Ender’s Game, Argo, Safe and Bullet to the Head. The interview really picked up though when we started delving into Perry’s vision for the future of action. He got out his laptop and showed me pre-visualized scenes from Safe, which are exactly the action scenes from the film except starring Perry and his stuntmen in street clothes instead of Jason Statham and Russian gangsters in suits.


CraveOnline: We know Quentin Tarantino is a dialogue guy. Is there a lot of room for fights in Django Unchained?

J.J. Perry: I was there for one big fight.


How does Tarantino direct you?

He’s a genius. I got hired by Jeff Dashnaw, the stunt coordinator, to come in and do a fight. I think they were a fan of what we did on Warrior, that style of fighting and he wanted something that was really gritty. It was a slave fight, almost like a cage fight but not a cage fight. I really can’t say too much more.


Of course, we don’t want spoilers, but if we imagine Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson are in that fight, how do they take choreography?

Jamie wasn’t fighting.


I’m excited you’re going to be doing Ender’s Game. What is your idea for those battle scenes?

Well, it was a lot of zero gravity work. Garrett Warren was the guy who hired me on that show who’s a wire master. He also did Avatar and I worked with him on that as well. They brought me in to train some kids and help out with rigging. I worked with Gavin Hood before on Wolverine.


Can kids do wirework? Are there special restrictions?

They can. We had a deep preproduction rehearsal schedule, doing wires and training them in all the zero G stuff.


Did you read the book for inspiration, or was the script specific in the battle scenes?

It was the script. We don’t really go by the book but I usually read the book just to do my legwork just so I can immerse myself in the world of what that movie is that I’m doing, if it comes from a book. I enjoyed the book and I enjoyed the script quite a bit too.


What kind of stuff did you get to do with Stallone and Walter Hill in Bullet to the Head?

Pretty hard R, maybe borderline NC-17. There’s a big fight at the end with Stallone and Jason Momoa fighting with fire axes. You can imagine how that goes. The title of the movie pretty much sums up everything we did in there, a lot of people getting shot in the face and parts getting blown off and all that stuff. It’s cool.


How does it affect your choreography when there’s special effects, like a limb coming off or all the squibs?

You have a couple ways of doing squibs now. Anything that comes in the foreground we’re doing it physically with the special effects department physically bringing squibs in. Everything that happens in the background, we augment that with a visual effect. It just depends on how much time and how much money you have. There’s a movie called Get the Gringo with Mel Gibson I did recently. If you go online, on the IMDBpro message board there’s some links to five clips from the movie. The shootout is one of them. You can see we took a very Peckinpah feeling of cowboys versus Mexicans in a prison. The end of Wild Bunch was kind of our inspiration. You have a shootout that lasts about a minute and 30 seconds but I think there were like 600 squibs rigged. And when you see it, you’ll see that a lot of those squibs are physical and they augmented a lot with visual effects as well. You start to see a real squib and they just add more blood to it.


Was Argo a lot of wartime action?

No, it was a lot of student protesting. There wasn’t a lot of fighting in that. It was more some driving stuff and a lot of pushing and shoving, guys firing tear gas canisters and big numbers of people.


I guess we take it for granted that even a protest scene, every push is choreographed.

The wolf you don’t see is the one that gets all the sheep. It’s what you’re not prepared for that sends somebody to the hospital.


You also worked on Daredevil. Have you doubled Ben Affleck?

I was just a stuntman on Daredevil, the Josie’s Bar sequence. There were about 15 – 20 of us, a bunch of fights and wirework.


In Safe are you by any chance the guy who gets run over both times by the car?

No, but I was one of the Russians. I was one of the Russians and did the fight choreography and stunt coordinated. The shootout in the casino I directed. The cops come in and start blasting all the Asian guys and Jason fights the guys in the high roller room.


One thing people are going to like is as chaotic as that movie gets, wherever Boaz Yakin points the camera is where something significant is happening.

Do you want to see the pre-vises for Safe? I’ll show you exactly what Boaz shot. We shot it before he shot it. I love Boaz. What a gem of a dude he is. This is part of the way we work. We get the script, we meet the director, we talk about the style of action he wants. Then we go in preproduction and we shoot the sequences on digi for his approval.


What about Gangster Squad?

I choreographed a fight between Sean Penn and Josh Brolin. It’s the very end fight of the film. It was cool. Doug Coleman was the stunt coordinator who hired me for that. They shot it really cool. Ruben Fleischer shot it really cool. He shot it with a camera Arri system which I thought was sick. It was fun to work with Sean and Josh Brolin is another one who can handle a heavy workload of action. He’s a tough kid, game to go and so was Sean.


Haywire is coming out on DVD. Are there any fights we may see in the deleted scenes?

No, there isn’t because I saw what Soderbergh did was when we shot it, we shot that scene with Fassbender in Ireland and after work every day he would be cutting it in the lobby of the hotel so I watched everything that he cut. I don't think there’ll be an alternate version.  I know when he shot it, that night he would go whip it together and make sure it was all tight.


We heard the story of how Gina Carano called Channing Tatum a pussy. Did that really make the scene better when finally came at her?

When he picked her up and slammed her? Oh yeah, Channing’s a stuntman. That kid is a freak of nature. He’s a total gem to work with. If I could work with people like Gina and Cung [Le] and Channing for the rest of my career I’d be really happy because it’s really easy, easy to make them look good and easy to work with.


Did you feel that scene wasn’t quite coming together until she provoked him?

No, I felt like it rocked anyway.


It’s just a funny story.



Cung Le says you have big plans. What is your vision, and is it exclusive to Cung or a broader vision?

I think Cung is definitely one of the guys who can do it all. He’s an action actor. Whenever you have people like Gina or Cung or Scott Adkins or Mike [Jai] White or Tony Jaa, you don’t need to double them. That way you can make action the star of what you’re doing. In other words, the studio model is to put a big name in there but when you put a big name in there that doesn’t have very much physicality, then it changes the way you need to cover the action because you have to hide the double. Then when you change that coverage, the action’s no longer the star. Now you’re worried about hiding a double and the camera doesn’t go necessarily where it belongs to highlight the action. As an action dude my job is to make action the star.


Now they shake the camera around. The directors who like that style say it’s because they want it to be gritty and realistic. Would you have advice to directors on how they can get a gritty, realistic look without having to shake the camera?

Well, it’d be pretentious of me to try and tell a director how to shoot his sh*t but I would tell you I’m not a fan of that style. I feel like it’s trying to hide something. In Bourne, you remember book to the head, pen in the neck, those two bullet points but you don’t really know what else happened. You see a blur of movement and you hear the sound effects but you don’t necessarily see what happened so all you remember is those bullet points. There’s book in the neck and then he got stabbed with the pen. That’s not what I’m trying to do.


Are you finding that actors are more willing to do things themselves because it’s the thing now?

They have to. They have to bring it. They have to be in the gym training and making it look good if they want to raise the bar because everybody else is raising the bar so high. You’ve got guys like The Raid, and look, you shoot in Indonesia, those guys work for nothing. It’s hard to compare those to American movies because we have unions and it’s expensive but I was a big fan of what they did with a low budget. I think that takes a lot more skill to do an action movie with not a lot of money an not a lot of time than it does to do a huge action movie with tons of money and tons of time.


What is something that gives away a bad fight scene?

First of all, when you have an actor or actress that doesn’t know how to throw a punch properly. This is a lot more common than you think, especially with actors. For me having a long period of preproduction where you can train them as much as you can, like I’ve been training Usher and Ryan Kwanten for a boxing movie for the last three weeks. Usher is going to play Sugar Ray Leonard, it’s called Hands of Stone. Gael Garcai Bernal is playing Roberto Duran. It was a lot easier to make Usher look good than it was for a lot of other actors because he came with a lot of athleticism but that’s a hard one. Boxing is a hard one to do because you only have two weapons. Those two weapons, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight weapons. You have two weapons with eight moves, four moves each. Jab, cross, hook, hook, uppercut, uppercut, overhand left, overhand right. That’s all you can do in boxing. So how do you make that interesting? You watch boxing movies and you think okay, it becomes boring. It becomes redundant after a while. MMA’s easy to make look good because you have those same weapons in boxing plus kicking, plus throwing, plus ground game so you have many more opportunities for impact. My take on action is when you see a fight, you have to see impact. I always prepare my people that I’m doing movies with, anything below the neck you should be prepared to catch it about 80% power so all the hits are in the foreground. I learned this from Cory Yuen. He was like, ‘Why I put the camera here is so the impact is in the foreground. That’s why I always see it. Everybody should get hit.’ If you look at the stuff out of Thailand, like Tony Jaa, they blast each other and I’m a big fan of that.


So you want people to hit each other for real, at least on the body?

That’s my take on it. Even when you’re doing stacked hits to the face, like if the camera’s over my shoulder and I go in front of your face, at some point you should come in and put the camera close and somebody should get hit from close. Maybe not full blast, but somebody needs to take a hit. I’m a big fan of that and that’s why I like what they’re doing in Thailand and China and Asia because they’re really hitting each other sometimes.


Our readers are going to want to hear about Firefly and Serenity. What did you get to do on those?

I doubled Nathan Fillion on Serenity and I was a stuntman on Firefly.


Were there any memorable stunts?

Yeah, listen, I worked for Joss Whedon quite a bit on all the Buffys and all the Angels because I doubled Angel for a while too. I must have done 30 or 40 Buffys or 30 or 40 Angels. Joss Whedon is a fan of what we do. He likes action and it’s always fun to work with a director like that. There wasn’t tons for Nathan in that movie. He had a fight with Chiwetel Ejiofor at the end. I didn’t work on that whole fight because I was bouncing around to XXX 2 but I was part of the team when we did the fight in the bar with Summer Glau. We helped choreograph that fight with our team working with the 87eleven team.


I was actually on the set when they shot that scene. That superhero girl is Joss Whedon’s thing so is there a certain hook, or move she has to do?

Well, there was something that triggers it. We were thinking it’s like no one can touch her but everything is so close. It would be like everyone except for her is moving in slow motion. Her perspective of everyone is they would be moving in slow motion so she never really had to engage anyone. It was more like she was two steps ahead of them.


Was Summer’s grace just naturally her?

She comes from a ballet background and her stunt double, whose name was Bridgett Riley, was a world champion kickboxer at the time so we had a combination of Summer’s grace and Bridgett’s explosiveness because Bridgett can knock a dude out with either foot or either hand. It’s always fun to have a little firecracker in there.